The only daughter of actor Yevgeny Samoilov (or Samojlov), Samoilova was born in Leningrad on 4 May 1934. Her mother, Zinaida (née Levina), was Jewish. Soon after her birth, Samoilova's father moved the family to Moscow. As a young girl, Samoilova was interested in ballet and studied music with her mother. She attended the prestigious Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre to study ballet, graduating in 1953. She was offered a position with the Bolshoi Theatre by Maya Plisetskaya, but chose to attend the Boris Shchukin Theatre Institute to study acting instead. While still in school, she appeared in one film – The Mexican by director Vladimir Kaplunovskiy.
After three years at the Boris Shchukin Theater, Samoilova landed the lead role of Veronika in Mikhail Kalatozov's war film The Cranes Are Flying in 1957. The film was a tremendous success, becoming the only Russian movie to win the Palme d'Or, at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. Samoilova received a special mention for "Most Modest and Charming Actress". She went on to win Best Foreign Actress at the Jussi Awards and the German Film Critics Award for Best Actress in 1958. In 1959, she was nominated for Best Foreign Actress at the BAFTA Awards.
While on tour promoting The Cranes Are Flying, Samoilova met Pablo Picasso who boldly predicted "tomorrow you will be driving in a car through Hollywood". The prediction nearly came true, as she received offers to work in Hollywood and other foreign film industries. However, upon return home she learned the Soviet government would forbid her taking foreign roles because she was still a student at the time.
Instead, Samoilova followed up her role in The Cranes Are Flying with the lead role of its 1959 sequel, Letter Never Sent. In 1960, she lost her job at the Mayakovsky Theatre and was unemployed for several years. In 1964, Samoilova starred in Giuseppe De Santis' war drama Attack and Retreat. Samoilova had the title role in Aleksandr Zarkhi's Anna Karenina, appearing beside her former husband Vasily Lanovoy in the 1967 film.
After several roles during the 1970s, Samoilova largely avoided the public light. Even so, she remained one of Russia's most popular actresses. In 1993, Samoilova was named a People's Artist of Russia, one of the state's highest honors. In 2007, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 29th Moscow International Film Festival.
Samoilova made a comeback in the 2000s, appearing in a number of television programs. Her final role was in Igor Voloshin's 2008 film Nirvana. In honor of her 80th birthday, Russian state television broadcast a series of programs about Samoilova on 4 May 2014.
Samoilova was married four times, most recently to author Sol Shulman. All her marriages ended in divorce. On 3 May 2014, the eve of her 80th birthday, Samoilova was taken to hospital in serious condition with coronary heart disease and hypertension. She died the following day at 23:30, and was buried at Novodevichy cemetery on 7 May. President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences upon Samoilova's death. At her funeral, movie industry insiders spoke of Samoilova's artistic gifts, but also spoke about how she had been cheated of the fortune she should have earned in life by the Soviet government. Singer and Member of Parliament Iosif Kobzon remarked, "she didn't have money. It’s shameful how cultural figures are treated."
Samoilova was survived by a brother, her son from her third marriage, and a granddaughter, who was named after her.The Mexican (1955) as Mariya
The Cranes Are Flying (1957) as Veronika
Letter Never Sent (1959) as Tanya
Vingt Mille Lieues sur la Terre (1960) as Natasha
Alba Regia (1961) as Alba
Attack and Retreat (1964) as Sonya
Anna Karenina (1967) as Anna Karenina
Nechayannye radosti (1970)
Gorod na Kavkaze (1972 short film) as Nadezhda
Okean (1974) as Masha
Vozvrata net (1975) as Nastyura Shevtsova
Diamonds for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1977) as Olenetskaya
24 Hours (2000) as Mama
Moskovskaya saga (2004 TV Series) as the professor
Far from Sunset Boulevard (2006) as Lidiya Polyakova
Nirvana (2008) as Margarita Ivanovna